Steam Whistle chugs ahead with cloud-based service

Greg Taylor would rather think about beer than about managing an IT department.


It’s a good thing he’s the co-founder of Steam Whistle Brewing, Canada’s largest micro-brewery located in downtown Toronto. Since seeding the idea for the company more than a decade ago on a canoe trip with former employees of Upper Canada Brewing Company, Taylor has set out to make his brewery’s sole beverage, a hoppy pilsner, a premium beer. The company’s motto: “Do one thing really, really well.”


That one thing doesn’t include supporting a Microsoft Exchange service. So Taylor got Microsoft to host that server for him instead, using the firm’s Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS). It was his first IT worker that suggested using cloud-based service, Taylor says.


A key benefit of the cloud strategy was Steam Whistle wouldn’t have to invest in a server that would last three or four years, and then do more research and make another investment. “We don’t want to train our people in IT, we want them to focus on customer experience.”


One of Microsoft’s Online Services aimed at the small to mid-market section, BPOS allows Steam Whistle to connect to an Exchange server hosted by Microsoft via Outlook. For a fee of $14 per user, the brewery gets access to Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting, and instant messaging with Office Communications Online.


BPOS has been offered by Microsoft since the middle of last year. It can be bought directly from Microsoft or through a partner.


The idea is to help small businesses focus on the basics, says Neil Tanner, vice-president of SMB solutions at Microsoft Canada. The service connects directly with employee desktops and allows them to store data locally and in the cloud.


“Small businesses can actually take information away, you don’t have to be on the Internet” to work on your documents, he says. “The IT manager just has to set up the Active Directory and the users. We host Exchange on our data centre.”


Steam Whistle is satisfied with the security of their data in the cloud, Taylor says. Microsoft is also able to filter out 85 per cent of spam e-mail before it hits employee Inboxes.


Support provided by the software giant has proved to be pretty good, too.


“You don’t have to have as much on-site support,” he says. “You don’t have to rely on IT support from providers who may or may not provide you with consistent support.”


Sending out important messages over the network has sped up communication in the company, Taylor adds. Important messages used to be funneled down through phone calls and memos from managers. Now those messages can be sent over the network to BlackBerrys, desktops, and are quickly absorbed by employees working across the country.


Companies that have good technology in place to allow employees to be productive are able to attract good employees, says Peter Lawler, senior vice-president of business development at the Bank of Canada.

“People are very tech savvy and expect whoever they work for will adopt technology to allow them to be effective in their role,” he says.


The Bank of Canada was lending out much more often to small businesses over the past year to help them through the recession, Lawler notes. Companies that invested in technology and planned strategically were able to remain profitable through the hard times.


Microsoft will be continuing to push its Outlook-accessed services into the cloud when it releases Office 2010 within the next six months. In addition to the Office Web components, there will be social media connectors that will integrate information from LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace into Outlook.


“When you get an e-mail from someone in Outlook now, you can see their entire history,” Tanner says. “You can see if they tweet, and if they use Facebook.”


Twitter will be supported by a social connector to Outlook at launch as well, Tanner said.


Features like that have Taylor thinking about upgrading to Outlook 2010 when its released. Steam Whistle has a social media presence that includes a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page.


“That’s a real focus for us, social media is very important to our brand because we’re a social brand,” he says. “It would be good for us to have a product to better manage that communication with customers.”


If he can do that, Taylor might be able to spend less time thinking about social networking, and more time thinking about — and drinking — beer.


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